Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Home by Toni Morrison

Knopf, 160 pages

Reviewed by Sharon Crowley

Most readers have authors' names, not just book titles, on their reading lists. Anticipating a new work by a favorite writer is one of the finest pleasures a reader enjoys, and when that writer is prolific and rarely disappointing, anticipation of the next book is that much greater. Toni Morrison has yet to prove undeserving of my high hopes, and while her tenth novel, Home, isn’t as linguistically grand or meaty as her master works, it reaffirms my resolve to read whatever she writes.

Home starts with Frank Money, a drifting, emotionally wounded 24-year-old Korean War veteran restrained in a psych ward for an offense he can’t remember. He’s been back in the United States for a year and he’s plagued by who he has become after surviving a war that killed his two closest friends. He’s lost his girlfriend, apartment, job, and in spite of his surname, the little money he possessed, and he's often overcome by uncontrollable rage. His skin color may not have mattered much in Korea, but Frank is quickly reminded that it’s what matters most in segregated America and he finds no societal welcome-home mat for black soldiers. Since his return Frank has avoided his hometown of Lotus, Georgia, but a letter from an unknown woman implores him to come home to save his adored sister Cee from an unidentified danger. He’s told to come fast, that she’ll be dead if he doesn’t. The request pulls Frank out of his detached daze and he heads south with the help of kind strangers and the weight of memories he can barely carry.

No one will envy Frank’s experience of home. His family fled their Texas home when he was four after hooded men told them and other African American families they had 24 hours to go or die. They settled in Lotus, a place Frank despised, and there’s no knowing if he could have ever grown fond of the town given how he arrived. His parents worked nonstop and then died young, leaving Frank and Cee in the care of grandparents who responded to their own hard lives by embracing cruelty. Cee sought solace in a boy who used her for a car and Frank escaped to the Army with his best friends. Now, twenty years after the first time he was forced from his home, Frank is running again, this time from himself and what he’s done.

Home addresses Morrison’s familiar themes—loss, redemption, memory, identity, and coming home. More brutal than beautiful, Home is abrupt and unembellished. Readers accustomed to Morrison’s gorgeous indulgence and slow build-up to emotional plateaus may not like Home’s brevity and the matter-of-fact delivery of shattering character revelations, but her storytelling reflects Frank’s predicament. It’s now or never for Frank. His sister’s life depends on him and he needs her crisis to force him to claw his way out of his own. By begrudgingly going home Frank takes the first tentative step toward moving beyond mere physical survival, and Home reminds us that what and how we survive are as unique as our experiences of home.

Sharon Crowley works in K-12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation.

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